Rayomand Coins

“Jeopardizing Parsipanu”?

After the Ripon Club (RC) managing committee (MC) and trustees were in the news two years ago regarding backtracking on a promise to hold a vote on whether to admit Parsi women as full members, the focus has shifted to the Dadar Parsee Colony Gymkhana (DPCG). They were to hold a special general meeting on this September 15 for members to vote on whether to increase the number of days a member’s spouse and children can "access" the Gymkhana premises and "use all the facilities," from four to 10, 15, 21 or 30 days. The vote was delayed as an option of "No change" had to be added.

Unlike most clubs in Bombay where the members’ families have unlimited access to the club and its facilities, the DPCG treats family members as guests. A letter with supporting documents "introducing their spouse/children," has to be submitted and "the member will be liable to pay the prescribed visitors’ fees." For non-Parsi guests, "previous intimation to either the president or one of the vice presidents or one of the joint honorary secretaries" is required!

But as membership is open to only "Parsis/Iranis (gentlemen and ladies) professing the Zoroastrian religion," non-Parsi spouses and the children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis cannot become members nor enter the Gymkhana more than four times a month. The DPCG reportedly turns a blind eye to the spouses and children entering oftener, but if someone were to raise an objection, there would be a problem.

If, on the other hand, DPCG opened membership to the non-Parsi spouses and their children, they would face flak from the traditionalists. The Saklat vs Bella Privy Council judgment of 1925 gives the trustees/management the leeway to do so, but few venture to use this route. Another option is to permit the spouses and children to use the Gymkhana facilities as most clubs in Bombay do, including the Ripon. All family members don’t have to be members in their individual capacity nor pay guest fees.

Faced with this dilemma the DPCG opted to give members the choice to increase the visiting days for spouses and children.

As expected, the proposal prompted a traditionalist attack. The Parsi Junction (PJ) fortnightly — and sometimes weekly — which is published by Pervez Driver but airs the views of former Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) chairman Dinshaw Mehta, alleged the MC was attempting "an ingenious backdoor entry" to permit non-Parsi spouses access. This, they claim, would prove "detrimental (to) the Parsi ethos of the club. For the short term benefit to their personal (non-Parsi) friends, they are unfortunately willing to jeopardize the Parsipanu of the club...They lack the candor to openly state they wish to admit the non-Parsi Zoroastrian spouses and the children of interfaith married Parsi lady members."

The paper also carried three anonymous pieces, one by "A Gymkhana member," another by "A concerned Parsi," and the third by "A Dadar resident" attacking the move. The unnamed parties questioned why the resolution was being put forth "when the members themselves have not made any formal application?...For the record, there are around 1,100 members of the Gymkhana...only around 15 to 20 members... are married out." (Parsiana has not verified the number of interfaith married members.)

The PJ editorial warned "the concerned members...will be constrained to approach the Charity Commissioner and the competent courts...including making every member of the MC personally liable for civil and criminal breach of trust and abuse of their fiduciary position as trustees." Mehta may put up one of his proxies to file cases. But it is hard to imagine any court of law striking down a social organization’s right to regulate the frequency of members’ spouses or children’s visits. Or, for that matter, upholding gender discrimination, more so if the majority of members favored a more liberal approach.

A Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and M. R. Shah stated, "We are not against inter-caste or inter-religious marriages. Such marriages should be ‘encouraged,’" according to The Times of India (September 9, 2019). Frivolous litigation would subject the community to adverse publicity and depict them as sexist and racist.

The DPCG office bearers are aware of the sensitive nature of the controversy. To deny admission to non-Parsi spouses and children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis would brand them as fundamentalists. On the other hand extending the definition of a member to include spouses and children would provoke the wrath of the orthodox and all who pander to them. The option to increase the number of days a spouse/child could enter was a via media.

In the case of the 131-year-old Parsee Gymkhana and others along the Marine Drive stretch, the Bombay Collector’s office insisted membership be open to all. They noted the land was meant for public use and the clauses restricting membership to a particular religion/community was unacceptable. All the gymkhanas thereafter opened up membership.

While opposing the RC resolution calling for a vote on admitting women as full-fledged members, Mehta had affixed his name to a letter in the Jam-e-Jamshed weekly decrying the move. Considering that he is/was a life member of the Association for Inter-Married Zoroastrians that was formed to further the cause of such couples and their children, his opposition was puzzling. Even in the DPCG matter, Mehta was a close friend of the late father of the woman agitating for equal rights for her son. She is married to a person whose mother is a Parsi and father a non-Parsi. But Mehta is an astute politician keenly attuned to ground realities. He has taken a cue from the global, populist, right wing, anti-immigration movement.

In the RC issue, Mehta succeeded in sabotaging the move to admit women as full-fledged members. Trustee and MC chairman Xerxes Dastur who had agreed to put a proposal for voting on the issue before the general body within three months, did a flip flop and delayed the vote indefinitely. One factor could have been that Mehta was supporting his successful candidature as a BPP trustee and Dastur did not wish to fall afoul of him or lose traditionalist voters. The cause of Parsi women thus became collateral damage.

The DPCG may prove a more formidable organization than RC, less vulnerable to political compulsions. Whatever the outcome, the DPCG vote will be yet another milestone on the long and bumpy road to gender equality, or the lack of it.





Villoo Poonawalla